Oleg Ivenko is a nimble dancer but, unfortunately, a very stiff actor.
The degree of difficulty is high for Ivenko’s performance as ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev in “The White Crow.” The native of Ukraine mostly acts in English, which not only is not his first language but also seems odd seeing as how co-star (and director) Ralph Fiennes, who speaks English better than just about anyone on the planet, plays Nureyev’s teacher, Alexander Pushkin, entirely in Russian. With French actor Adèle Exarchopoulos not speaking her native tongue, either, the upshot is that most of the cast seems uncomfortable most of the time.
Elsewhere, Fiennes (whose last directorial effort was 2013’s “The Invisible Woman”) and screenwriter David Hare (best known for 2002”s “The Hours”) make better choices. No current dancer comes close to Nureyev’s Kanye-like level of celebrity and infamy. But instead of turning this into a greatest hits parade, the film concentrates on his origins.
Ending with Nureyev’s 1961 decision to defect to France, the movie depicts his dance education and the series of decisions, driven by his mercurial personality, that made it impossible for him to continue to live in the then-Soviet Union. (Early in the film, an administrator tells Nureyev, “Ballet is about rules.” But it’s already clear he doesn’t believe in rules.)
According to “The White Crow,” Nureyev was a jerk to just about everyone he met, but he was so confident and inventive that people were drawn to him anyway. (One telling detail: He is fascinated by the famous “Raft of the Medusa” painting, with its themes of violence and cannibalism.)
I can’t comment on whether Ivenko’s movement resembles Nureyev’s but I can say that his dancing, which Ivenko has studied since he was 5, is magnetic. There’s a slashing harshness to his movement that made me think of what sometimes happens with Maria Callas’ voice — it’s not beautiful, precisely, but it’s dramatic, and its imperfections make you want more.
Fiennes’ performance as the grave Pushkin is an asset to the film and a tribute to the actor’s versatility, since Pushkin is almost the exact opposite of the hyped-up goofball Fiennes played in “A Bigger Splash.”
He’s also a thoughtful director, with a keen sense of pace. The best scenes come during a half-hour sequence at the end, when Nureyev must make a decision about whether to defect. At the tense climax, he’s told that if he walks a few steps toward one door, he’ll be in France, but if he chooses another door, it’s back to the Soviet Union — and, probably, exile — for him.
We know what decision he made, but Nureyev’s peak years are left for someone to create a “White Crow 2” (actually, Nureyev’s ballet triumphs, issues with drugs and numerous affairs seem like a Ryan Murphy of “Glee” fame miniseries). Fiennes drops hints of what the dancer’s life will become, foreshadowing Nureyev’s eventual collaboration with Margot Fonteyn by having someone note that pairing a younger man with an older ballerina is always a winning combo.
Ultimately, “The White Crow” seems tailored to appeal to moviegoers who are already fans of Nureyev’s idiosyncratic dancing and want to know more about how it got that way.